Save the Pedestals

Ivan Vladislavic

 
 
 

She dreams: the empty pedestal is made of glass and resting in it like bones in a reliquary are the names of the statue’s children.

Comrade A had the habit of rapping on the toes of his boots with his cane as he walked. They were safety boots of a kind you can’t buy any more, with heat-resistant soles and steel toecaps from which the rubber tip of the cane rebounded. This drumbeat irritated Ma Z, but she had known Comrade A long enough to hold her tongue. He was touchy about the boots, which he’d been wearing since his days as a shop steward in the Metalworkers’ Union. He didn’t care that they were down at the heel and looked odd with a suit, and he would give anyone who dared to comment a lecture on the hazards of the shop floor. These boots had saved his feet more than once when a metal bar slipped off the rollers in the factory. You could still see the dents. He was touchy about the walking stick too, although he had come by that more recently.

It was pension day. The two old friends had taken the train to the station, as they did every month, and then a bus to the city center. It was their routine to stop for lunch before they walked over to collect their pensions. You don’t want to face the pension office on an empty stomach, Ma Z said. In fact, this office was no more than a desk in Fidelity House where veterans like them picked up their checks, by special arrangement, but they liked to joke about the endless queues and the grumpy clerks, just as if they were ordinary old-timers. If pension day fell on a Tuesday, when the supermarkets offered pensioners a special discount, along with a free blood-pressure test and a cup of tea, Ma Z brought her shopping basket, and she was towing that behind her as they went along Company Lane.

A gastropub, she said when they spotted the signboard. I didn’t expect it to be so fancy.

The Swannery was a new restaurant she’d seen advertised on a bus shelter. There was a menu on a music stand outside, in a handwritten script as full of curly tendrils as a bean plant, and they paged through it.

I could write like that once, she said. They had a calligraphy class at the Academy in Sofia. All it takes is a bit of practice.

Penmanship? I thought you specialized in military strategy. 

My field was strategic communications, but we had our leisure time, our hobbies. It wasn’t all work and no play.

Comrade A struck the music stand with his cane. Pretentious simplicity, he said bitterly. Artisanal bread. Which is to say: left in the oven too long, misshapen and black as a pot on the bottom. How did artisanal come to mean made by an amateur?

Some other time then. When he was in a mood like this she knew not to insist.

They walked on to the Great Leader noodle bar at the end of the block. Comrade A liked to sit there at the sticky counter, under the ironic portrait of Chairman Mao, and discuss the lessons of the Cultural Revolution.

Ma Z had the chicken chow mein, declining the chopsticks in favor of a plastic fork. If God meant us to eat with sticks, he wouldn’t have given us fingers, she said, or forks, which are a sensible improvement.

Comrade A lifted a water chestnut expertly with the chopsticks and let the hot sauce drip off into his bowl. He had a theory that chopsticks were good for the waistline. Look how skinny the Chinese are, he said. When you eat slowly, you appreciate every morsel, you chew properly, you savor the tastes and textures of each ingredient. He shattered the water chestnut between his teeth and picked up a slant-cut green bean. You think about the hands that till the earth and plant the seedlings. You see a chain of tendril winders, forklift drivers, pickers, packers, slicers and dicers, each with a part to play in bringing this lowly vegetable to your plate.

Bowl, she said. Over her friend’s shoulder, she saw a teenager with a rash of pimples like tiny fried eggs on his cheeks shoveling rice and shredded pork straight from a tilted bowl into his mouth.

The waiter brought them jasmine tea. As she cracked the sticky bowtie into shards, Ma Z voiced an idea she had been carrying in her mind for a week. We should go and take a look at the Old Man.

You won’t find him home, said Comrade A.

It was a week since the statue of the president had been removed from the square.

I know he’s gone, she said; I also watch the news. I mean we should go and look at the pedestal.

It will be empty.

That’s why I’d like to see it. He was up there so long. I’m curious to see if the place feels different now that he’s not looking
down on us.

So they called for the bill and split it exactly, as they always did, and went out into the lane.

It was a very civilized removal, she said, as they ambled along.

Surprisingly enough, after all the fighting that went before.

Some of our people wanted him to stay, even though he was giving the wrong impression. The conqueror lording it over a free city—where do you see such a thing?

He had to go.

They kept the security guards, mind you, the men with the beards. They were allowed to stay.

That was good thinking. Comrade A remembered the statues in their niches around the pedestal, four sentries draped with bandoleers and cradling rifles with the ease of men used to war.

I thought he would be properly toppled, Com, but they found some professionals to loosen him nicely and lift him off with a crane, very carefully, as if he was made of glass. Do you remember when the people pulled down Saddam Hussein in Baghdad? Now that was a toppling.

Did you think so? I was disappointed. The Marines usually break things once and for all, but Saddam keeled over like a clown whose shoes are stuck to the ground. I half expected him to spring upright again, like one of those donkeys with elastic bands for joints.

This thing with the president was much more dignified, as I say. 

Tell me Ma, do you remember that chap who jumped up on the pedestal afterward and struck a pose? He was wearing a T-shirt with a slogan on it, but I couldn’t see what it said.

Once you’ve pulled something off a pedestal it must be very tempting to jump up there yourself.

That’s what I thought: he’s trying on the empty boots for size. But he didn’t look comfortable. You know, the Old Man was a size 12.

***

The words of Stanisław Lec came into Comrade A’s head: When smashing monuments, save the pedestals. They always come in handy.

They were standing on a path near the middle of the square, side by side, gazing at the empty pedestal. Gazing rather at the space above it, a man-shaped hole in the air whose headspace was troubled by the quick gray smudges of pigeons, claws outstretched, reaching for the vanished perch of a hat brim. The sentries slouched in their niches like workmen on a smoke break.

I wonder what they’ll put up there, Comrade A mused.

A Hero of the Struggle, said Ma Z.

I doubt it.

No sooner had this feathery doubt crossed his mind than a statue appeared on the pedestal, the figure of a man in bronze, every bit as imposing as the one that had been taken down, and more elegantly dressed. Comrade A shook his head to dismiss the vision, but it persisted. A professional man, apparently, in a three-piece suit with a broad tie and a pocket square.

The two friends gazed speculatively at the pedestal. They were both at that stage of life when your eyes begin to deceive you.

It’s a fine pedestal, she said, squinting. It would be a shame if it went to waste. And then she opened her eyes wide and saw that the figure was still there. What is that?

You see it too?

I do.

It’s a good sign, he said at last, making a diagnosis. Your imagination is still working.

More than I can say for my ankles. Let’s sit down for a while. 

There were no benches, but a stone wall that encircled the pedestal offered them a perch. She parked her shopping basket between them and they each put one foot up on it, she to rest her ankle and he to relieve the pain in his knee.

Who do you suppose it is? she asked.

Is it a VIP? It’s fuzzy at the edges, you can almost see through that bit where the stomach sticks out. Perhaps it’s just an idea. Let’s say: Enterprise.

It’s one of our mining magnates. 

Our billionaire philanthropists.

Someone who throws a party for the kids at Christmastime.

At that the statue of the man in the suit faded away and a new figure appeared on the pedestal. It was obvious from the overalls and boots, safety boots like the one Comrade A had propped on the shopping basket, that this was a worker.

It’s a shame you imagine him like that, she said. The worker was on all fours with his head hanging down between his shoulders.

Why do you suppose it’s my doing?

Someone must be summoning these visions, Com, and it isn’t me. You’re the one with the overactive imagination.

I’m the one with a grip on reality. Perhaps it’s a projection? I saw something like that a few years ago. An artist made portraits of our Heroes of the Struggle and projected them onto the walls of the High Court.

He stood up, rubbing his knees, and gazed at the facades of the Palace of Justice, the old Parliament, the General Post Office, the Opera House. He thought he might see a projector jutting from a ledge, but above the rooftops there was nothing but sky and pigeons. He remembered the story that the crown of the Old Man’s hat was hollow, but had long since been filled to overflowing with bird shit.

When he sat down the pedestal was empty again. The sentries were nodding off. 

***

I’m going to miss him, said Ma Z. I miss him already.

They had moved to the other side of the square to consider the absence from another angle.

You never thought much of him before. You said he was a hero of the colonists.

That’s true, Com, but I was used to him. He was always there. That part of the sky doesn’t look right now.

He wasn’t always there. For many years he stood at the railway station. They moved him here after the war.

And who was here before him?

Nobody. There was a pond with water spouts and shrubs
in pots.

And now he’s gone again. She gave his hand a squeeze. It was his time. He caused our people so much pain.

Yes, I saw that on television, the young people especially. The sight of him was too much to bear. They were crying!

Why do you suppose it hurts them so much?

They’re not like us, Ma: they haven’t grown a thick skin. We’ve been rubbed raw, you and me. My poor back is nothing but scar tissue.

He’ll be better off in a museum. Our people have been burning statues, you know. One of these days they would have burnt him too.

This thing with the tires troubles me. Who would set fire to a statue? It reminds me of Heine.

Please, Ma Z thought. Not that again.

You’re right, Comrade A thought. Let’s not talk about it now.

The sun beat down on them. The trees straggling along the paths provided no shade. The square had been a gathering place once, but these days it was no more than a thoroughfare. Comrade A had seen photographs in an old book showing the pond, where a few people had paused to cool their eyes, and he’d looked at the dawdlers through a magnifying glass to see if they were rich or poor, but it was impossible to tell. Only their hats and trousers told him they were all men.

I know what you’re thinking, she said; you think I don’t know who Heine is, but I’ve read him, and also Holub, and Herbert—

You go for the ones with an “H.”

—Neruda—oh, don’t be silly! she said, punching his arm.

You were quite a poet yourself in your younger days, he said, to mollify her. I remember that one about the flowers. The petals of my anger open … What an erotic charge! They should put up a statue of you. I’ll write to the task team about it.

There are poets much more deserving of honor than this has-been, she said, deflecting the joke. Do you remember Gwala? We buried Humpty Dumpty

Or that chubby Bra So-and-So. A ball of energy, leaping about with the microphone clutched in his fist like a Molotov cocktail. He would make a good statue.

He’s not so lively anymore. You can’t even get him to recite anything. He just sits behind a desk and reads from a book, like a novelist.

Well, we can’t put that on a pedestal, Ma. A statue should be up on its hind legs. 

I agree, no sitting, unless it’s on a horse.

Ja … but the men on horseback are usually those conquerors of yours, the field marshals and governor generals.

Our people hit one with a hammer yesterday.

They should pull down the rider and keep the horse!

No sooner were these words out of his mouth than a statue of a riderless stallion appeared on the pedestal, reared up on its hind legs, mane and tail streaming, reins afloat on the air.

This is definitely one of yours, but I like it. The vision reminded her of the sweaty horseflesh in the winner’s enclosure at the races. Our people are very fond of animals.

And now!—what’s this?

The riderless horse had bolted and a podgy little animal had taken its place.

Looks like a pig, Com. Why are you proposing that?

It’s not a proposal so much as a possibility. In any case, it’s not one of mine.

Nor mine.

Time to go! Her answer troubled him. A dozen people were standing stock-still on the paths or sprawled on the grass, their eyes fixed on the pedestal. What if the visions were his alone, but the power to apprehend them extended to everyone?

I wouldn’t choose a pig, she said. Not when our people can’t put food on the table. That pig will be pork by breakfast.

Rashers and cutlets. Now we really should go, before we miss the pension office.

***

At the top of the stairs they paused for one last look over the square.

The pig was gone. In its place stood a naked man with shackles on his wrists and ankles, head thrown back and mouth wide open. From his lips bulged an immense tumor. It pressed down on his chest and ballooned back over one shoulder. It was, Ma Z thought, as if he had coughed up his lungs. Or, Comrade A thought further, as if he had vomited a speech bubble full of reproach.

What’s this ugly thing, Com? Is it a sick person?

I think it’s a prisoner, a political prisoner, or a slave. Look at those chains.

But we don’t have any of those.

Suddenly the pair of them felt hungry. Together they turned away. Although they seemed to have been dawdling on the square for hours, the hands of the clock in Parliament tower had not moved. They crossed the street and passed the booth where they came every January to collect their special bus passes. Behind them, the statue of the prisoner crumbled away to nothing.

***

They strolled, as they always did on pension day, into the Templeton Arcade. Comrade A steered Ma Z through the doorway of Manolis’s bakery. There was a bitter taste in his mouth, which he hoped a chocolate éclair would dispel. He was thinking again about her poem. The petals of my anger open / to your iron resolve … She had written it when he came out of detention. It was dedicated to him, her subversive beloved, scourge of the old regime. She must have forgotten.

Long rows of sweets glistened under curved glass: chocolate brownies and Chelsea buns, cubes of coconut ice and petits fours like tiny parcels wrapped in national flags.

Small and expensive, he thought.

Don’t we deserve a little luxury from time to time, she thought, after all we’ve been through.

She chose a florentine and he a custard slice. Then they split the bill, as always, and went back into the arcade. He regretted his choice at once: he needed two hands to eat it. Not for the first time, he felt like snapping the walking stick in two and dropping the pieces in the nearest garbage can. It had been a retirement gift from his colleagues at Public Enterprises, a parting shot, as he thought of it, one last stab in the back. He clamped the stick in his armpit and balanced the pastry on his palm. She was managing the florentine well with one hand and the shopping basket with the other. Outside Fidelity House they paused so she could give him a nibble of the biscuit. As she held it to his lips, exuding the essence of almond and orange peel, the past and the present pressed their palms together in his chest and an unfamiliar tumult shook him. A woman like Ma Z … why not say it—Ma Z herself, the young woman she once was, had treated him with tenderness. The moment would never come again. This certainty pained him more than anything they had spoken about all day.

***

A pig of all things!

It wasn’t mine, Com, and even if it had been, it’s no worse than your dead miner.

He was on his knees, but there was life in him, I assure you. He was about to rise up!

He saw the figure he had conjured earlier, a man on all fours with his head dangling, but now he was in flames. Was he a miner at all? Or was he thinking of that migrant worker who was burnt to death because he was a foreigner? He searched his memory for the name. Flames must be difficult to cast in bronze, a flame is such a lively thing, so full of restless energy. The ones that flickered in his mind were convincing enough.

Meanwhile she had dozed off. The train had this effect on her: no sooner were they out of the station than she would be nodding. She loved everything about the train, the elegant lines of the carriages, the picture windows, even the pattern of red blocks on the royal-blue upholstery. It reminded her of her old life in Cologne and Vienna. Her exile.

The name would not come to him.

Conjure. He used the word without thinking. Was it possible that he could summon something into existence? Imagine something fully enough to make a stranger see it too? Magic was a perilous undertaking.

René Magritte, The Future of Statues, ca. 1937.

The carriage swayed as they gathered speed, an almost imperceptible movement to remind them they were bound to the earth. Her head nodded uncertainly at her reflection in the window glass, as if to say, Why is that face familiar? A procession of figures passed before his eyes, amalgams of flesh and stone. A laundrywoman with a bundle of bloodied sheets on her head. The first African woman to get a certificate in Pitman’s shorthand. The last speaker of Nuu. He pictured each of them on the pedestal in the square, hands on hips, hungry and disdainful, gazing out like the models at the end of the catwalk on Fashion TV, which he had taken to watching in the small hours of the morning when he couldn’t sleep.

He dreams: at midnight the statues climb down from their pedestals and go in search of better prospects. On quiet streets pedestals are swapped with a handshake or a kiss, but outside the city hall and the art museum, in the squares where the tourists come to take pictures, the statues defend their pedestals to the death.

***

It was pension day. Once again the two old friends had taken the train to the station and a bus to the city center, and now they were standing on the sidewalk outside the Swannery in Company Lane. My treat, Ma Z declared, and this time she pushed through the door before Comrade A could start complaining.

The waiter brought the menus. She suggested they share a salad to start with and they considered the options laid out on a bed of calligraphic tendrils and shoots. Every dish was spiked with something unexpected, with mountain goat cheese or dates in jackets or pistachio brittle.

Olive cheeks? Comrade A said at last.

You have to imagine a chubby kalamata. She puffed out her cheeks and sliced the air with her butter knife.

The mains were a gothic buffet of aged meats and seared fish. She settled on the free-range pork belly with watercress aioli. He said he would have the pole-fished salmon because it sounded like a square meal. It came with asparagus foam and parsnip dice.

When the waiter had brought her glass of merlot and his tap water, their conversation turned again to the Old Man.

I miss him, despite myself, she said, twirling the stem of her glass between her fingers. I went by there last week on my way to a Board meeting and that empty pedestal upset me.

Apparitions?

No.

I wasn’t going to mention it, Ma, but I went past there too, just a few days after our last visit. It was interesting to be seeing things like that in broad daylight, I wanted to try again.

And?

Nothing.

Perhaps it only works when we’re together? She nudged the steel toe of his boot under the table to no effect.

The waiter brought the kale salad with parmesan chips and olive cheeks.

Comrade A lifted a bruised sliver from a curly leaf on the end of his fork. It was a piece of olive, pure and simple, but he couldn’t help seeing the little olive face from which it had been severed. He dropped it back in the bowl. Then she doused the leaves adeptly with oil and vinegar, as she’d seen it done in Calabria, and they began to eat.

I’ve been thinking a lot about statues, Ma. Did you know there are still thousands of statues of Lenin in the Soviet Union?

The former Soviet Union. Nastrovje! I didn’t know that, no.

We always hear about the statues that were carted off to the scrapheap, but no one mentions the ones that are still there.

Why do they keep them?

People are fond of them. There’s Old Vladdie, they’ll say, as if he were a great-uncle they used to visit in the school holidays, a smelly old bloke who pinched their cheeks and gave them toffees. 

Doesn’t he remind them of the bad old days?

He does! But people are fond of the bad old days too. It’s an inexplicable thing. It’s like you and the Old Man.

It’s not the same at all.

When I was standing there by the pedestal a young chap came up, a clerk with one of the law firms it turns out, and asked me what I was doing. I said I was imagining that the old president was still at his post. And he said, Who’s that? He’d been crossing the square every day for a year, going to work and coming home, and he could hardly remember the statue at all. Even when I’d described that big face with its lump of a nose and rheumy eyes, he couldn’t picture it.

I’m forgetting him myself, Com. As much as I miss him, he’s fading away, like someone who’s died. How is he standing again?

He’s leaning on a stick like mine. And he’s got one hand in the breast of his coat, I think, like Napoleon.

She got to her feet and stuck her hand in the front of her blouse. Like so?

Something like that.

Wasn’t it like this? She turned out her feet and opened her arms.

Now you look like a fisherman with the one that got away. In truth, for a moment she looked like a young woman, the young woman she used to be, full of jokes, always acting things out.

Or Mary at the foot of the cross. She flung her arms out farther and collapsed into her chair.

A pietà.

For your dead miner.

The waiter brought the mains. The asparagus foam was like the scum on a stagnant fishpond but it tasted yummy (as she assured him). They both tucked in.

When I was a little girl, she said later, as they sipped their single-estate cappuccinos, I had an uncle with a big mustache. After a visit, we children always had to kiss him good-bye.

And she looked for the end of the story in the bottom of her cup.

***

What could it be?

They were leaning on the parapet, side by side, looking over the square. The pedestal was no longer empty. It was occupied
by a large object swathed in blue plastic sheeting and bound with ropes. Pigeons strutted about on the summit, which was streaked with shit.

It’s a huge roly-poly thing, she said; I’m surprised the pedestal hasn’t cracked through. But then large things aren’t always heavy.

It’s hard to tell what’s going on under there, but see how it’s scrunched up on that side. He’s got his arm raised, if you ask me. He’s holding up his fist.

No, it’s too pointy. He’s wagging his finger. Or reaching for the stars. 

It could be a miner with a drill.

Or a domestic worker with a mop. 

Or a tax lawyer with an umbrella.

It could be a gun, Ma. Look how long it is compared to the fat part at the bottom which must be the body. No normal man has arms that long. It’s a Kalashnikov for sure.

Or a stick.

It’s a freedom fighter.

Or an unarmed protestor.

It could be a woman.

With a pen.

In this silence she bristled.

Just supposing, he mumbled into his shirt front. Let’s not fight about it. I’m enjoying this too much. Shall we go a bit closer and see what we can make of it?

It’s like old times, isn’t it, when everything seemed possible?

To show that she meant it, she hooked her arm through his and gave it a squeeze, but not too hard, and she leant her weight on him, but not too much, as they went down the stairs. 

***

Now don’t hurt your ankle. Or your back. Keep your core strong. 

Ma Z had climbed onto a ledge occupied by a sentry with a rifle and was stretching up to a bulge in the plastic, while Comrade A stood ready to catch her if she overbalanced.

It’s definitely not a hoof, or a trotter. It could be the toe of a boot.

Can you get your hand in under the plastic?

No, it’s pinned here under the toe, if that’s what it is. Perhaps it’s the Old Man. They might have spruced him up and brought him back.

Three times bigger? Impossible.

Comrade A had been reading up on the president. There were many legends about his life in exile, and he thought Ma Z would appreciate them. Hadn’t she too been at home once, at home-away-from-home, in Belgrade and The Hague? As for himself, a man who’d never had need of a passport, he was taken by a local fact: this was the Old Man’s neighborhood. His house was down that street over there—the name had been changed recently and hadn’t lodged in his memory—and when he first came to power, he would walk the few blocks to work. Later he went around in the carriage of state like a cabinet minister with a blue-light convoy. He had gone in and out of these buildings, passed down these streets, crossed this square. Here he had stirred crowds to insurrection against their imperial masters. He might have stood on this spot gazing down into the pond, where a goldfish rose to the surface, its red flanks like enamel in the sunlight, its mouth opening and closing.

I should tell her, he thought, but this is hardly the time for a history lesson. In any event, her ankle gave a warning twinge. He helped her down. 

***

On the far side of the pedestal they found a poster advertising the unveiling.

That’s the day after tomorrow. We should come back.

It’s hardly worth going home. We could stretch out here on the grass and get on with our speculations. The shape of the object under the plastic was still on her fingertips.

Perhaps it’s neither a man with a gun nor a woman with a pen, she thought. Perhaps it’s a small child with a pointed hat on top of a pile of skulls.

That would be something, he thought. But let’s not talk about it now.

And then the possibilities surged in his mind, running thicker and faster than ever, springing up onto the pedestal like circus acrobats, shouldering aside the ones who came before or shoving them over the edge: sweeney. greeny. the pisser. the tosser. the lame duck. the dead certainty. the innocent bystander. the master chocolatier. the data miner. the man in the green blanket. the king of the cowboys. the woman in the body bag. the burghers of callooh callay. the keepers of the old stories. the enemies of the people.

Teatime! he called to stem the flow. My knees are killing me. 

I’ve got a better idea, she said, glancing up at the clock tower. Let’s skip Manolis today and go straight to the pension office, and then I’ll stand you to an early supper. It’s a long time since we ate at Dietmar’s. We’ll order a Shiraz, for old time’s sake, and the beef Wellington with all the trimmings, and talk about pleasant, insignificant things. Who knows, if we slow down, yesterday might even catch up with us.

Tomorrow, he said, don’t you mean tomorrow?

He dreams: the citizens, marching backward around the pedestal, turn back the clock. The general dismounts from his stallion and grows younger, he becomes a cadet with smooth cheeks, a boy in knickerbockers, then a babe with a rattle. He disappears entirely, leaving nothing but the scent of baby powder. The citizens do not go home. On and on they march, back and back, winding the general’s father and his horse from the depths of the stone.

***

It was pension day. The two old friends were back at the Great Leader and going dutch. Ma Z had recommended the egg-flower soup to Comrade A and ordered the prawns in coconut milk for herself. Now it was his turn to break the bowtie into pieces, hers to choose first.

I still say it’s a pity we missed the unveiling, he said.

And I still say I’m glad, because we missed the speeches too.

You got the date wrong.

How many times must I say I’m sorry? My memory isn’t what it used to be.

She chose the smaller shards of sticky pastry and left him to press the rest into a brittle maquette between his fingers. 

Have you seen it? she asked.

Not a glimpse. To avoid temptation, I haven’t even opened a newspaper. You?

We promised. But it’s so hard to avoid the news these days.
I thought you might chance upon a picture of it on some blog
or other.

I saw it mentioned on a newsbill and that’s all. I couldn’t help it. 

Then we’re both still in the dark. She looked at him over the rim of the teacup.

Liar! he thought. You’ve already seen it. I know you.

I don’t really like jasmine tea, she thought. I should stop
drinking it.

I’ve been mulling over our last chat, he went on. Remember you said a large thing doesn’t have to be heavy. It reminded me of this artist Jankowski who’s been going around Warsaw picking up statues. I thought you might recognize some of them from your sojourn there.

The statues of Warsaw? Not likely. It was so cold I couldn’t bear to go out. Not that it bothered the locals. At Christmastime, people scraped the snow off the picnic tables in the parks and sat there drinking beer! There were so many statues, too, and impossible to tell apart. Angry-looking men with mustaches.

You do remember! Let me show you. From his wallet he took a much-folded sheet of newsprint and smoothed it out on the table top. It was a news article about an exhibition. In the photograph, a dozen men in Victorian bathing suits were clustered around an enormous bust. Their bulging calves tapered into striped gym shoes and their thick forearms into fuzzy wristbands. All had found some handhold on the monument, and if you looked closely at its base you saw that they had raised it a foot off the ground.

Who are these people?

They’re weightlifters. No amateurs either: the champions of Poland. They’re lifting up this statue.

Why?

To show that it can be done. It’s a reminder that people
can change things if they try. He pressed the creases out of the caption with his forefinger. Says here: if they act together and take matters “into their own hands.” That part’s in inverted commas. It’s a pun.

I get it. And this distinguished gent? 

Ludwik Warynski, the leader of the workers’ party.

The man from Solidarity. I thought he looked familiar.

No man, that’s Lech Wałe˛  sa. This is a century earlier. Comrade Warynski founded the first workers’ party in Poland in 1882.

He had a handsome face, the man in the monument, with a well-clipped beard that framed a sensuous mouth. The pince-nez on the bridge of his nose made his eyes seem doubly intense. His hair was swept back from his forehead, as if he had turned his face to the future and found the wind blowing fiercely from that quarter.

It must be heavy, she said.

You can see how they’re straining. Eleven strong men with this unwieldy chunk of the past in their hands. Jankowski calls it “Heavy Weight History.”

And what did they do with Comrade Warynski after they’d picked him up?

Well, Jankowski filmed the moment and took some photographs like this one, to record the moment for posterity. And then they put him back down again.

Just like that?

Just like that.

She dreams: the statues cast off their iron clothes and stand on the pedestals flat­footed and wide-eyed in their soft human bodies.

***

It might be a flimsy thing, she said as they went down the lane. So light it floats off into the blue if you raise your voice near it.

Don’t hold your breath.

She kept her eyes on the tip of his cane bouncing off the toes of his boots until they reached the top of the stairs. Then she took his hand and together, under a birdless sky, they looked at the new statue on the old pedestal.


Ivan Vladislavić’s books include The Folly and Flashback Hotel. His latest novel The Distance is due to be published by Archipelago. In 2015, he was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize at Yale University for fiction. He lives in Johannesburg.